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GUEST COLUMN

Another expensive education rule...while schools say children don't need to read fiction

Recently I participated in a tour of a school in Bremerton. I was stunned when one education official opined, "Children are not interested in reading literature or fantasy. They prefer to read about the real world."

This official evidently hadn't noticed that The Hunger Games trilogy, a fantasy for teenagers, has sold 36.5 million copies, or that children devour Harry Potter books which, at 450 million copies sold, is the best-selling series in history.

This strangely detached attitude is reflected in the latest centralized, top-down effort to change public education. Remember A Nation at Risk from the 1980s? Remember Goals 2000 from the 1990s? Remember No Child Left Behind? Remember the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL)?

The latest push is called the Common Core Standards Initiative, and it seeks to force a one-size-fits-all curriculum on all 55 million U.S. students and subject them to a single high-stakes test. The new national test will be required in Washington state classrooms starting in 2014. Proponents say this time the Common Core rule, unlike its failed predecessors, will make all children "college and career ready."

But why the criticism against popular books like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter?

Superintendent Randy Dorn and state lawmakers signed on to the Common Core rule when the federal government made it a condition of receiving federal dollars. The new rule will require teachers in grades six through 12 to replace 50 percent of their literary and fantasy reading assignments with mandatory nonfiction; dry texts like government documents, court opinions and technical manuals.

This is why some officials are telling parents that children are reading the wrong books.

The cost to Washington state taxpayers, according to government estimates, will exceed $300 million.

Here is what Dr. Anthony Esolen of Providence College said about the Common Core: "[W]hat appalls me most about the [Common Core] standards . . . is the cavalier contempt for great works of human art and thought, in literary form. It is a sheer ignorance of the life of the imagination. We are not programming machines. We are teaching children. We are not producing functionaries, factory-like. We are to be forming the minds and hearts of men and women."

R. James Milgram, a mathematician at Stanford University, concluded the weakened math standard would put American students two years behind students in many high-achieving countries, such as those in East Asia. The Common Core delays algebra I to 9th grade rather than 8th grade, meaning most high school students will not have time to study beginning calculus, as is expected by many elite colleges.

Geometry teachers will be told to teach their subject with an experimental method never used successfully anywhere in the world. This method failed 50 years ago when it was tried by math prodigies in the Soviet Union. The Common Core rule has other problems:

...It fails to teach students about prime factors and common denominators

...It delays mastery of division from 5th grade to 6th grade (unlike countries like Singapore and South Korea)

...It fails to teach conversions between fractions, decimals and percentages

...It uses the failed "functional algebra" model that de-emphasizes mastery of numbers

...It cancels some algebra and geometry content that is a required for entry at most state colleges

Parents are left helpless in the face of these academic shortcomings. As 300 prominent education policymakers state in "Closing the Door on Innovation," the Common Core rule puts control over the national curriculum in the hands of unaccountable bureaucrats in Washington D.C., freezing in place a mediocre curriculum for all American children.

A Nation at Risk, Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind and the WASL all started with bright promises to improve public education. They all failed. The Common Core Standards Initiative is simply the latest in a long line of grandiose education schemes. It too will fail, all while consuming millions in education funding and years of misdirected effort.

Our real-life state leaders should emulate the courage of the fictional Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, by standing up for what is right and refusing to implement the Common Core rule.

We can do better for students, but only if we say "no thanks" to another costly, flawed federal initiative and focus on education reforms that work for our state.

- Liv Finne is the education director at the Washington Policy Center, a non-partisan, independent policy research organization in Washington state. She is the author of "Eight Practical Ways to Reverse the Decline of Public Schools," available at washingtonpolicy.org.

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